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TRAVEL INSIDER

Make sure price is right on bidding sites

July 08, 2007|Terry Gardner | Special to The Times

WE worry a lot about the cost of airfare, but travelers often don't pay enough attention to hotel and car rental rates, which can add up to quite a bit more than your passage from Point A to Point B.

That's why I book my hotels and car rentals online with the opaque sites Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) and Priceline (www.priceline.com).

I have used both sites successfully and frequently, Hotwire more often for rental cars and Priceline for both. I arrive at my travel destination with more cash in my pocket by paying as much as half off a hotel room rate and at least 25% less for rental cars.

There are downsides to using these sites, of course, and the clue is in the descriptor "opaque." You're taking a chance. You don't know all the details -- mainly, which company you're booking with or, in the case of a hotel, where exactly you'll be staying.

And once you've "bought" your hotel or rental car, you are going to have to live with it; the rules on refunds are pretty inflexible. So these sites aren't for the risk averse. But if you have a little bit of gambler in you and can roll with the punches, you may come out on top, financially speaking.

In TV terms, Hotwire is "Let's Make a Deal" and Priceline is "The Price Is Right." You tell Hotwire when and where you're going and it comes back with deals for -- and this is key -- what it classifies as two-, three- and four-star hotels, absent one detail: the names.

But the site will tell you the area of town, and if you know the area and generally how the hotel is rated, you can figure out which hotel it is based on the details Hotwire provides.

With Priceline, it's an auction. You offer a price, and the site searches for something that matches your rating, location and price criteria.

Sometimes, Priceline mocks you. "Based on recent data, your price has only a small chance of being accepted," one message says. Or it sneers, "Your price has almost no chance of being accepted." Don't be intimidated. Priceline may save you money, but its goal is to maximize its revenue. So when it counters your offer saying there is no hotel for your price but that, well, there is one for $20 or $30 more, you still may be able to get it for at least a few dollars off that $20 or $30 mark.

Be skeptical, too, of Priceline's median price proclamation (as in "Median retail price for a resort hotel in Maui is $413"). That doesn't mean you must start the bidding at a certain point. You can and should try for less.

There is some help at hand at other websites before you make that final commitment to buy: www.betterbidding.com, www.biddingfortravel.com, www.bidontravel.com, www.biddinghelp.com (a fee-based site).

The one I've used most often, BiddingForTravel, has helped me bid confidently on Priceline. I have won hotel rooms on Maui and the Big Island for $90 to $160 a night that would have cost me double if booked conventionally.

In New York, I paid $120 on a Saturday night for the Exchange Hotel in the Wall Street District. The hotel's website recently listed a standard guest room for the last Saturday of this month at $252.

I've won compact rental cars through both Priceline and Hotwire for as little as $12 a day and as much as $22. For me the rental car brand is unimportant, but you need to make sure you compare the opaque price with what you can get directly on a rental car site.

If you're ready to bid, here are some tips:

* Book your airfare before bidding. Remember, if you win a rental car or hotel room (or airfare) through Hotwire or Priceline, the transaction is nonrefundable, nonchangeable and nontransferable. (See each website's disclosures.)

* Develop a bidding strategy by visiting one of the websites above that either shows you what's been won recently or actually connects the dots for you.

* Ask for help. BiddingForTravel has a moderator, and you can complete a bidding request form. Once you determine where you want to stay, choose three to four possible hotels listed as known Priceline hotels on BiddingForTravel, then go to each hotel's website to see the best rate offered for your dates.

Once you post your request form, the moderator suggests a bidding strategy, which will suggest where to begin bidding and in what increments you should increase your bid. Be ready to bid immediately. If you don't, they may be less helpful in the future.

* If you get your price, be sure to post it on the bulletin board to help the next bargain hunter.

travel@latimes.com

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